Science and Technology Committee: the Big Data Inquiry (panel 1)

On Tuesday 1 December the Science and Technology Committee examined the opportunities and risks of ‘big data’ and explored the Open Data Institute (ODI). Below are my contributions to the session and responses from the witnesses.


Valerie Vaz: I think it would be helpful if you set out the background to your organisation. I was trying to find out where your money comes from and to whom you are accountable. I know that you are a not-for-profit organisation, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee has given his knowledge and know-how about the internet for nothing. Could you tell me a bit about the background to your organisation?

Gavin Starks: We are three years old. We were set up partly with a grant of £10 million over five years from the UK public sector through Innovate UK. Under our legal constitution, we are independent, non-partisan and non-profit. Our board includes Sir Tim Berners‑Lee, Sir Nigel Shadbolt, Baroness Lane Fox, Neelie Kroes and other non‑executives. Our focus is part mission and part to create a sustainable business. Our income this year is about 50% from Government and philanthropic funding—we have a philanthropic investor, Omidyar—and through our direct income. We charge for training and we charge for membership of our networks—we now have over 1,000 paying members of a global network—and for our research and development and advisory services. We also run start-up programmes, and there are various competition funds around them as well. We do a lot of work both in the UK and internationally, and we have been growing, roughly doubling every nine months, since we started.



 Valerie Vaz: In terms of governance, who does the UK Technology Strategy Board report to? Is it one particular Government Department or a number?

Gavin Starks: We report to the Innovate UK monitoring officer. They do not have a seat on our board, but we provide them with reports on a regular basis.


Valerie Vaz: Who do Innovate UK report to?

Gavin Starks: They report to BIS.


Valerie Vaz: It is mainly BIS as opposed to the Cabinet Office, but you collaborate with different Government Departments.

Gavin Starks: We have very strong links with Government, both with Paul’s office and GDS as a whole. We also have very strong links with other Departments. For example, our head of policy is seconded right now to DEFRA to help them create their data-driven strategy. This is where we see a huge need for an increase in data literacy across government, the public sector and the whole of the commercial sector as well. This is not just about data science; that is the easy bit. The much harder bit is around all the processes, policies, standards and so on that we are helping to co-design and co-create with our partners in the commercial and public sectors.


Valerie Vaz: In terms of the work programme, who does that? Is it the Government who set it up and push you to do it, or do you do it and bid for Government work and then you push it? In terms of open data, how does that go?

Gavin Starks: We bid for Government work and for commercial work, but usually with our partners. Looking across the range of our work, we do a lot of work with different countries around the world helping them to set policies, but not directly bought by those countries. Similarly, in the UK we work directly with DEFRA. It is a secondment arrangement in that instance, but we charge for training and advisory work. We also have various points of interaction where there is no fee exchange at all. For example, we work on some of the data steering groups with the Treasury. I am co-chairing a working group there on creating an open banking standard for the UK. We hope to take that forward into a standard next year.

Our function is to help to bridge the views of the private sector, broader civil society and the public sector, convene those opinions and facilitate the conversation that leads to the best outcome for all the different actors involved. In terms of governance, we are mission-driven to help bring together those voices. We are not following the agenda of a particular Government, company or civil society organisation.


Valerie Vaz: In terms of accountability for public money and the end result, who sets that? I am conscious that sometimes you can have projects that do not have an end date.

Gavin Starks: Our remit was to try to match funds within the five-year period. Our income this year is match funding. We have a turnover of about £2.5 million this year on top of our grant funding. That grant expires effectively at the end of next year, so we have been building a sustainable business underneath to take it forward long term.


Valerie Vaz: Who owns that information? Is it just public because it is a public-private partnership?

Gavin Starks: Owns which information?


Valerie Vaz: All the research that you do.

Gavin Starks: We publish everything under open licence.


Valerie Vaz: Everybody has access to it.

Gavin Starks: Everybody has access. All of our materials, whether that is our creative outputs, our reports, the research and development, the tools, the techniques or the standards, are licensed openly for anyone to use for any purpose.


Valerie Vaz: Can you briefly touch on the national information infrastructure and the data steering group and explain how well it is going, and what they are actually doing?

Gavin Starks: From our perspective, a huge amount of time and energy is being invested in working out what our data infrastructure is and to start thinking about data as infrastructure. That is a big mindset shift. We should really be thinking about data as infrastructure in the same way as we think about roads as infrastructure. Roads help us navigate to places; data help us navigate to decisions. Those decisions need to be made by everyone. There is a lot of work to be done to work out what we would classify as data infrastructure for the country: for example, our geo-spatial information. DEFRA has just released its dataset called LiDAR, which is very detailed environmental mapping. That has helped local businesses, citizens and Government make better decisions about their built environment.

The first question is: what problems are we looking to solve? What datasets help to support them? When we look at the data infrastructure piece, we need to ask questions not just about geospatial but, for example, about the banking sector. Building on some of the earlier points, there are well-established structures and organisations like the FSA and ICO that have defined roles about how data can be used. We then need to take them forward and ask where they fit on the data spectrum, with data infrastructure as the core. A simple thing would be where all the ATMs in the country are. That should be open data, but currently it is not. That is because companies think about this information by default. Similarly, we have had a pattern with trading funds, for example, where things are considered to be closed and open. That has gone through a huge evolution. There is a huge amount more work to be done, but we have seen some very good progress, with the Met Office, for example.